Why at-risk kids engage in high-risk behaviorby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new study by the University of Minnesota shows that kids who believe they are going to die young often engage in the very behavior that can lead to an early death.
That runs counter to the conventional belief that teens take risks because they see themselves as invincible.
The study says 15 percent of adolescents believe it's highly likely that they will die before age 35.
"That's more than one in seven youth in this country who look into the future, and don't see a long and winding road ahead of them," said Dr. Iris Borowsky, lead author of the U of M study.
She and her colleagues looked at survey responses from more than 20,000 youth who have been tracked since 1995 through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
It is a nationally representative sample of students from grades seven through 12. They were first interviewed in 1995, then again in 1996 and in 2001-2002.
The data showed that adolescents who thought they had a good chance of dying earlier often engaged in the very behavior that can lead to death. They had a higher incidence of illegal drug use, suicide attempts, unprotected sex, fight-related injuries, arrests, and diagnosis of HIV or AIDS.
Borowsky says the findings reveal the vulnerability that some kids feel -- a concept that runs counter to conventional wisdom about teens.
"Historically it's been thought that teens think they are invincible, they're invulnerable. And that this feeling of personal invulnerability has been thought to play a key role in why teens engage in risky behaviors," she said.
But the survey results showed the opposite might be occurring.
"This data says that hey, maybe adolescents are taking risks because they actually feel quite vulnerable to dying early," said Borowsky. "So it really is contrary to conventional wisdom."
The perceptions about premature death were especially prevalent among youth of color and those living in poverty.
Shane Price is a community organizer in Minneapolis who works with troubled youth. He says the report's findings mirror much of what he's seen over the years in his community.
But Price says he's not hearing as much hopelessness as he once did. He says President Obama's election as the nation's first African-American president has inspired many young blacks.
"I feel this spirit of activism, this spirit of momentum in the children. And that is what I think is changing," said Price. "And that is what I think comes against some of the findings in this report, in a good way."
On the east side of St. Paul, Mitch Roldan is watching a different story unfold. Roldan is a gang prevention coordinator.
"I have seen in the African-American community, kind of a sense of hope. I would say in the Latino community it would almost be the opposite of that," said Roldan. "With the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment that there is, just more and more kids just kind of feel like they're without hope."
Roldan says when he asks at-risk teens in his community what they hope to do with their lives, more often than not he's told that they don't have any specific goals. He says that's practically unheard of among their peers elsewhere, who typically have plans for college or work.
But that doesn't mean these teens can't change the way they see their future. Researcher Iris Borowsky says there is a growing body of research that shows the benefit of creating hope among kids.
Borowsky is a pediatrician, and she says she now realizes she should ask kids more questions, and reassure them that the odds are in their favor. "What do you think the future holds for you? Do you want to go to college? What do you want to do when you grow up? How long do you think you're going to live? Do you think you're going to die early? Those are questions as that as a health care professional I need to consider asking," she said.
They are also questions Borowsky says all adults should be asking the children in their lives.
The University of Minnesota study on teen mortality perceptions is published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.
- Morning Edition, 06/29/2009, 7:20 a.m.